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What you need to know about diabetes

15 April, 2016

Did you know that around 1.7 million Australians have diabetes? This includes all types of diagnosed diabetes, as well as silent, undiagnosed type 2 diabetes which is estimated up to be around 500,000 people. Diabetes is often spoken about, but many people aren’t sure what it actually is or how it can affect you.

What is diabetes?

Diabetes, or diabetes mellitus, is a group of metabolic diseases which prevent the body from properly using and storing glucose, which is a form of sugar. Glucose comes from the foods we eat, but is also a product of your muscles and liver. Your blood carries glucose around your body which is used by your cells for metabolic energy. 

For glucose to be used correctly by our bodies, it needs to be successfully converted into energy. This is achieved by the hormone insulin. Insulin is released by your pancreas, an organ found between the spine and stomach which aids with your digestion. When a person is diagnosed with diabetes, it means their pancreas is not producing enough insulin for the body to convert glucose effectively - it may even not be producing insulin at all. This causes the body's glucose levels to rise in excess within the bloodstream; in other words, their blood glucose (blood sugar) levels rise too high. 

Types of diabetes

There are three main types of diabetes: Type 1, Type 2, and Gestational Diabetes. All are complex and require daily maintenance and self-care.  

Type 1 diabetes

Type 1 diabetes is also known as juvenile diabetes, insulin-dependent diabetes, or early-onset diabetes. This type often affects younger people below the age of 40 years, most often during early adulthood or teenage years. Type 1 diabetes is much less common than Type 2, with less than 10% of all sufferers diagnosed with this form.   

Type 1 describes the condition in which the body completely stops producing insulin, meaning daily insulin injections are required in order to survive. This usually occurs when the immune system, which would normally protect you from viruses, bacteria and other harmful substances, has instead attacked and destroyed the cells which create insulin.  

Frequent blood-glucose checks are required to monitor insulin levels, and most sufferers are recommended to follow a specific diet. As well as having insulin injections and practising careful dieting, controlling cholesterol levels and blood pressure, as well as leading an active lifestyle, are all a part of stabilising Type 1 patient’s health and symptoms. 

Type 2 diabetes

Type 2 diabetes is also referred to as adult-onset or noninsulin-dependent diabetes, and affects around 90% of all sufferers. This form usually occurs in people over the age of 40 who are overweight and have a family history of the disease, however it can occur at any age. 

Type 2 diabetes occurs when fat, muscle and liver cells develop resistance to the effects of insulin – basically, the body is no longer able to use insulin the right way. As the disease worsens, the pancreas may produce less and less insulin. In a non-diabetes sufferer, the pancreas can increase insulin production to meet the demands of the body. However, if Type 2 sufferers insulin levels remain insufficient, the pancreas can become overworked and/or under efficient. 

Some medications will help combat this type of diabetes, which should be complemented by patients becoming healthier with better food and lifestyle choices. As with Type 1, Type 2 patients should also monitor their blood pressure and cholesterol levels. Type 2 diabetes often affects overweight and obese people, with those with more visceral fat (fat around the abdomen) being especially at risk.

Diabetes 1 CBHS

Gestational diabetes

Gestational diabetes mellitus (or GDM) occurs during pregnancy, and often goes away after the birth of the baby. Between 5-10% of pregnant women will suffer from gestational diabetes, which usually occurs around the 24th to 28th week of pregnancy. Women who suffer from this type of diabetes can sometimes suffer from Type 2 diabetes later in life, and their child may also be more at risk to the disease as well.

Women who are over 35 years of age, have a family history of Type 2 diabetes, are overweight, or are from an Indigenous Australian, Torres Strait Islander, Vietnamese, Chinese, Middle Eastern, Polynesian or Melanesian background are often at higher risk of this type of diabetes. Those who have previously had gestational diabetes, Polycystic Ovary Syndrome, have previously given birth to a large baby, or have a family history of gestational diabetes, are also at a higher risk. 

Symptoms of diabetes

Symptoms can be wide and varied, and in some cases those suffering from Type 2 diabetes may have minor symptoms that go unnoticed for months, sometimes years. In these cases, the condition is only diagnosed by having a blood test performed. 

Common symptoms include:

  • Feeling thirstier than usual.
  • Passing urine more than usual.
  • Unexplained feeling of tiredness and lethargy.
  • Feeling hungrier more than usual.
  • Cuts take longer to heal.
  • Itching infections of the skin.
  • Blurred vision.
  • Unexplained weight loss (Found in Type 1 diabetes).
  • Gradual weight gain (Type 2 diabetes).
  • Headaches.
  • Mood swings.
  • Leg cramps.
  • Feeling dizzy.
  • Breath smells of acetone (more common in Type 1 diabetes).
  • Nausea, vomiting, abdominal pain (more common in Type 1 diabetes).
  • Frequent skin, bladder or gum infections.
  • Tingling or numbness in the hands and/or feet.
  • Irritability.

How to raise awareness of diabetes

Because many people are unaware of the symptoms, the severity of the condition, or even what diabetes really involves, it is important to raise awareness of the condition so more people can address their own risky lifestyle and eating habits, and be informed of the potential symptoms to catch the disease early on.

Diabetes 2 CBHS

Sign petitions for a good cause

Every so often, government bodies or organisations will ask for signatures to petition for increased funding, or asking for assistance to help with research of the disease, or support services for current sufferers. This is a great way to show your support, and if you share the petition with friends and family they can also be mindful of the disease and share with their friends.

Consider undertaking some training

Understanding diabetes and the symptoms of those suffering from the disease through professional training can be an invaluable lesson for both yourself and those with diabetes. If someone you know suffers from diabetes, whether it’s family or a co-worker, understanding the condition and what might happen in a medical situation such as a hypoglycaemic attack can help them immensely, as you will know what to do in this situation.

Participate in local events

Charities and fundraising groups will often hold events in their local area to raise awareness and much needed funds. Some don’t require you to donate money, but rather participate. However, donating is always going to help the cause. Some events include fun runs, walks, bike rides, or even morning teas, so you should be able to find an event that you can enjoy. Check your local newspaper or jump online for more news and information. If there are no events running you could always set up your own event with friends, family and co-workers.

Stay up-to-date

Another great way to get informed is to read news and websites with diabetes information. Keeping up to date with news, programs, research results and tests will ultimately help you to stay informed and understand more about the disease. It can be as easy as checking a site such as Diabetes Australia for information on events, news and resources. 

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All information contained in this article is intended for general information purposes only. The information provided should not be relied upon as medical advice and does not supersede or replace a consultation with a suitably qualified medical practitioner. CBHS endeavours to provide independent and complete information, and content may include information regarding services, products and procedures not covered by CBHS Health Cover policies. For full terms, click here.

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